On patrol in Afghanistan: always “pushing out”
By Ed Marek, editor
January 13, 2013
“We’re playing big boys’ games ... What I’m interested in is getting the job done, and let’s face it, getting the boys back safely.”
Lieutenant Colonel Carew Hatherley, Grenadier Guards, Britain
Most of us have not been in ground combat. That includes me. Though I am sitting here in the lap of luxury, I have tried to discover and understand what our men and women have gone through while exposed to ground combat, by reading their testimonials and memoirs, and by watching videos of them in action. I have selected the Afghanistan War as the setting. Our forces have been there over 11 years, many of them have been there several times, and this war continues on.
I might say there are a lot of videos showing various patrols. You might want to spend a bit of time watching some of them.
I am compelled to report at the outset, that I am acutely aware of what one Marine said in a video that I will address again at the end of this report, assignmentafghanistan.org. He said:
“Definitely the hardest part about being out here is watching your friends get killed or altered for the rest of their life. Civilians don’t wake up in the morning and see,huh, am I going to lose my legs today or die today, so, I won’t tell anybody anything. I mean, nobody wants to know what anybody saw or did out here. If you really want to know about it enough, you should come out here and do it yourself.”
Well, many of us back home do want to know but we cannot or have not come out there to see for ourselves. I will try my best to describe your experiences as best I can in this forum, from afar.
Ground combat patrols are either mounted aboard some kind of vehicle, or dismounted and on foot. Of course, many patrols begin by being inserted by helicopter or being dropped from aircraft, but these will end up mounted or dismounted, usually the latter. And then we have our special forces, who sometimes ride horses or donkeys.
There are many differences between this war and the Indochina War --- I am a veteran of the latter. But there are some sure similarities. One that strikes me as a good way to start our exploration of what it might be like to be on a ground patrol in Afghanistan has to do with logistics. In this case, enemy logistics.
You will recall the resources and blood the US spent trying to stop the flow of logistics over the Ho Chi Minh Trail that wound its way from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to move men and supplies into the Republic of Vietnam. The enemy there had a long and difficult logistics tail. The enemy fighting us in Afghanistan also has a tough logistics tail, though it is a bit different than that encountered in Indochina and just as hard to handle for Allied forces, if not harder.
In 2009, Philip Smucker reported for the World Security Network while embedded on patrol with an element of the 10th Mountain Division in the Afghan mountains. He said:
“There is a growing understanding in the NATO and US high command circles now, however, that as long as the insurgents can keep their supply lines open, even the best of Afghan and Western coalition ‘nation building’ efforts are likely to collapse in the long run.”
As an aside, the war started in 2001 and it took the brass until 2009 to figure this one out?
Just as North Vietnam had to go through other countries to move its logistics, so too does the enemy we face in Afghanistan. In this case, the enemy must use Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor to the east. Just as North Vietnam needed great financial and weapons support from the Soviets and China, so too the enemy in Afghanistan relies heavily on financial and weapons support, in this case from Pakistan, Iran, the Persian Gulf region, and from within Afghanistan itself. In the case of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, our forces were allowed to bomb enemy forces on it, special forces did go into Laos to reconnoiter for targets on the trail, but as a general rule, we could not put any ground forces on it to engage the enemy and stop the flow. General Westmoreland, our commander in Vietnam, wanted to send in three divisions into Laos to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but the suits in Washington rejected his plan. In the case of Pakistan, we are covertly attacking targets in Pakistan, but this is more directed at leadership targets than logistics flows. Other than what special forces might be doing, as a general rule the suits will not let us put ground forces into Pakistan to stop the flow, nor into Iran. Most of that effort is done from the Afghanistan side.
To better understand what our patrols in Afghanistan are up against, and why they fight where they fight, we’ve got to at least briefly introduce ourselves to the ethnics of the problem, the geography, and the NATO assignments.
This photo shows the Northern Alliance, Afghans supported by the US and US air, entering Kabul to depose the Taliban government. Following the ouster of the Taliban from Afghanistan by the US and its Northern Alliance Afghan ally, the Taliban retreated into Pakistan, to rebuild.
Specifically, they moved into northwestern Pakistan, and remained there from roughly 2001 through about 2004.
I need to pause here, to be fair to the Pakistanis. During this report, I will paint a very negative picture of Pakistan’s conduct during this war. She is supposed to be an Ally of the US, and certainly receives a great deal of aid from the US. But Pakistan is without doubt a big part of our combat problem in Afghanistan --- a huge part of our combat problem. That said, many Pakistanis, especially in their Army and Air Force, and among their civilians, have a done a great deal to fight off the Taliban who also present a grave threat to Pakistan. I will not talk much about this latter point as I am most interested in understanding what our patrols must endure in this war, much of which is caused by Pakistan’s attitudes toward the Taliban.
There is a lot to learn from maps. Regrettably, I cannot seem to find everything on one map I want to highlight. So I will have to use several. You might wish to refer back to them every once in a while as we proceed.
The Taliban are in the main a Pashtun movement. This is ethnic group living in Afghanistan and Pakistan, characterized by the Pashto language. Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, though the majority of Pashtuns live in Pakistan. Most of those in Pakistan live in the northwest. The areas of both countries in which they live are shown on the map. The Pashtuns have a legacy of being a warlike people. Oddly, they are of Israelite descent. They openly acknowledge that, yet they have strong grudges against Israel and the Jews.
This illustration highlights the areas where the Taliban seem strongest, and mark the provinces involved. It also marks some key areas in Pakistan, like the Swat Valley, the two Waziristans, Baluchistan and a place to the south named Quetta. I should point out here that US forces have been very active in and largely responsible for patrolling the provinces on the border and within the Pashtun areas and Taliban strength areas. Keep this in mind as we proceed.
I know this is hard to read. NATO formed the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, to fight against the Taliban and secure the Government of Afghanistan. It has always been under American command. General John Allen, USMC is the present day commander, soon to be replace by General Joseph Dunford. Since its formation, ISAF divided Afghanistan into regional commands. Leadership over these commands was assigned to various countries. The assignments have changed a bit over the years, but I want you to compare this with the previous two maps. The yellow area is Regional Command Southwest (RC-SW), now led by the US. The violet area is RC-S, now led by the US. The greenish area is RC-E, led by the US. The point to remember is that the US is leading the efforts in all three regional command areas all of which lie in the most violent areas of the country. Now I must emphasize the prominent roles played by other nations, most notably the British in what is now RC-SW and the Canadians in what is now RC-S, along with many other nations, all of whom have sacrificed a great deal and to whom we owe our greatest respect. I apologize in advance for not focusing more on all these countries. I must do so one of these days. I did a story on the Sangin Valley in Helmand Province which talked quite a bit about the British. You might wish to look at it --- “Afghan’s ‘No Go’ Sangin Valley.”
I’m a little off topic, as I wanted you to focus on the areas where the US has been operating the most and compare that to the other maps showing the Pashtun population and the areas where the Taliban has been the strongest.
Geographically, the entire border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is porous, some 1,600-plus miles long.
Here’s a look at the topography. The Himalayas lie to the east. The Hindu Kush represents a sub-range of the Himalayas and about two-thirds of Afghanistan is occupied by the Hindu Kush. Elevations can get to over 24,000 ft. though the elevations decline as you move westward. The point here is that virtually the entire eastern section of the country, where US forces have done most of the operations, lies in the Hindu Kush, some very rough terrain indeed. If you are on dismounted patrol, you’d better have some very strong and durable legs.
To the south of the Hindu Kush lies the great Baluchistan plateau. We’ll talk more about Baluchistan later. It’s a mind-bender of a place.
Pakistan, on Afghanistan’s eastern border, also hosts some of the Hindu Kush. It also hosts several other ranges at elevations from about 7,000 ft. to 15,000 ft., likewise very rough terrain. Since Pakistan has been serving as a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda and much of the supplies and many of the fighters come from Pakistan into Afghanistan, the reality is moving their logistics is no trivial task. Tracking that flow is even harder: they know where they’re going, they have caves in which to hide, and we don’t always know where they are. The terrain here is much greater challenge than we faced in North Vietnam, and the passes, which I will highlight in a moment, much more divergent.
I do not pretend to know all the routes the enemy uses through Pakistan to get into Afghanistan and fight. But I do know that there is a group of well used passes to move goods and products between the two countries legally. I have denoted the ones about which I was able to learn. These are international commercial routes.
The Taliban has been able to disrupt NATO supply movements through these passes and gain access to a lot of NATO equipment and has been able to gain access to the money paid for the NATO supplies to move through. The Northwest Frontier Territory is largely lawless and is home to the Swat Valley, which served as a centerpiece of the Taliban rebuilding effort. It is largely a Pashtun holding and is in the Hindu Kush. The Taliban have great freedom to store and move supplies through here.
A website names “Mobile Sophie” presented this photo of the terrain in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border. The FATA area is marked on one of the above maps. The photographer and author said this:
“Pictures can’t do justice to the scale and range of these mountains, and when you realize that these are the mountain hideouts of Taliban and other insurgent groups (and where the US is trying to drone strike them out of existence), the difficulty of dislodging them, or cutting off smuggling routes they use, becomes very clear.”
While the mountain ranges are formidable, they run in irregular directions, some to the west, others to the east, and many to the north and south. What is important to understand is that these ranges enclose many small valleys and plains, some of which can be as wide as five miles. There are many rivers and tributaries running through all this and lakes enclosed as well. For many, this all combines to be a wonderful tourist attraction much like going to the Swiss Alps.
For our purposes, however, the Taliban, through a multitude of connections, a great understanding of the best routes, clever means of transportation, employment of caves, tunnels and hideouts, and vast systems of bribery, is able to get supplies and men through.
The trick for American forces is to find them and at least impede them. There is no way to organize enough military forces to go in and block every route. But we do have an advantage I’ll address later that the Soviets did not have --- we have some gangbuster technologies that enable us to see a lot, all day, all night, all weather, and from the air, which is space the US owns.
I wish to make one more point. Our forces do a lot of climbing in this terrain. You note the photo where one of our troops found an enemy cave. He climbed to that location. Our troops find many hundreds if not thousands of such caves, and our aircraft can spot many of them as well. But while our men on the ground are doing their business, they often find themselves located below enemy hideouts. In turn, the enemy is often able to engage our forces with rockets, grenades, rocket propelled grenades, machine gun and small arms fire downward at our forces. Sometimes our troops are in a valley and have to find places to hide, then locate their enemy, return fire and call for air. Other times they find themselves perched on ledges and steep terrain, taking heavy fire. They either have to climb up to meet the enemy or scurry down to avoid the enemy, both demanding situations to be in.
Other times their outposts are below the mountain slopes from which they receive daily hostile fire. Quite often, the men in there outposts cannot see the enemy though the enemy can see them. The men will tell you that their enemy up there are not idiots, they know what they’re doing, they have state-of-the-art weapons, including thermal seeking weapons to attack helicopters.
One Marine said, “They have been fighting in these mountains for years. They know how to fight. We have a hard time countering them.” So technology alone does not seem to always suffice. At many of these outposts, our forces are supposed to secure the area and the surrounding villages, but all too often they cannot get out of their outposts except at night, and the enemy has the villagers so afraid that they find it very hard to locate the enemy. One Marines has said, “Alls I want to do is put two cross hairs on him and shoot him right in the face, but I can’t.” He can’t because even when only 700 meters away, our guys often cannot see their enemy.
With regard to the passes, US forces scale mountains and ridges to gain positions where they can observe the border crossings. Back in April 2009, Philip Smucker reported for McClatchy Newspapers that these US forces often receive detailed photography of “columns of men of fighting age crossing in knee deep snow from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Bulky clothing makes it unclear if the men were smuggling in weapons.” Various Rules of Engagement (ROE) prevent our forces from attacking unless they are almost certain the target is enemy. Nonetheless, eyes on the enemy from edges and mountain areas provide outstanding intelligence on enemy logistics movements. Here you see Spc. David Mendez, USA, A, 3-71 Cavalry, scanning the ridgelines for possible enemy movement and rocket-propelled grenade positions at the Kamdesh Provincial Reconstruction Team Base in the Kunar province of Afghanistan in August 2006.
From where I sit, the Taliban has a great advantage of being able to move men and supplies from safe havens in Pakistan into Afghanistan over and through some very rugged terrain, much of which they know very well. Finding out how they do this is no easy chore, and I am only able to touch the surface.
It’s not only the passes. We must also be aware of the many routes that wind their way through Afghanistan, some dotted with checkpoints that can check only so much. Looking back up at the maps, locate Kunar province way in the northeast on the Pakistan border. It is about as rugged there as it can get, and hosts the famous, or infamous, Pech Valley and the town of Nangalam.
Look at the terrain. Nangalam lies on the Pech River. The US gave up trying to defend this area, after having been in numerous fierce battles and having lost many good troopers. The Afghans have tried to hold it, but the US Army has had to return to bail them out. For US commanders, the area is so rugged they feel it is not worth defending. They feel their resources are more valuable protecting population centers. For the Afghans it is a matter of pride. The first photo shows a typical checkpoint on a road that runs along the Pech Valley. Getting supplies to the enemy through here is not an insurmountable chore for the enemy.
The enemy cannot hope to accomplish much by staying in the mountain hideouts, other than rest, resupply and all that. Eventually he has to come out. It is at that point he can be best engaged, though we certainly have people such as special forces prowling around for them. Recently, covert drone attacks against the enemy hiding in the mountains have been largely targeted against leadership figures, which some considerable success. This is an area where we are operating differently than did the Soviets. The US has a toolbox of technologies to apply to try to deal with the terrain and help the men on the ground. A primary goal is to find the enemy and then engage him.
The dominant ways to find the enemy here are through aerial reconnaissance …
by air insertion of ground forces, especially special forces …
by foot along with …
visual reconnaissance and ….
operating on the ground at night in treacherous terrain employing night visions technologies.
Add to this that most reconnaissance and attack aircraft are equipped for night time operations, have the capabilities to downlink their targets directly to a patrol on the ground, and have the capabilities to be directed against targets found at night by foot patrols from the ground. This photo shows an AH-1 Cobra night attack against an enemy spotted by ground forces on the ground.
These sequence shows an USAF AC-10 gunship closely watching activities around a mosque. Ground forces and other reconnaissance had identified this mosque as a meeting place for enemy. It is the square building to the right.
All around the mosque were vehicles and men walking around.
After considerable coordination, the AC-130 was cleared to destroy the vehicles. You can see by this shot that not only did the AC-130 hit its targets spot on, but the targets were laden with weapons and ammunition because of the massive secondary explosions that followed. Following this attack, people began streaming out of the mosque and running to other vehicles, with some stepping on the gas to get out. Each were tracked by the AC-130 and dealt with. Individuals running about were also dealt with. Finally, after seeing so much enemy activity and so many secondary explosions from hitting trucks and other vehicles, the command and control authority authorized the AC-130 to destroy the mosque, which it did.
So this is just a glimpse of various technologies the US has against the enemy to help the men on the ground and to deal with the enemy all day, all night and in all kinds of weather. And, you can be sure our forces have use of many other technologies about which we don’t know.
I will remark here that at many remote combat outposts, our forces are only able to “push out” of their outpost at night, employing their night vision technologies. Their first objective is reconnaissance. In one video I watched, they wanted to ‘get eyes’ on a village up in the mountains, an area from which they had been receiving hostile fire every day. They made their way to the village and arrived in the morning, but no luck, no Taliban. By the time they returned to their outpost, in came the hostile fire again.
I want to focus for a moment on the Pakistan region known as Baluchistan. It is instructive.
As a reminder, Baluchistan is a massive plateau region in southwest Pakistan that straddles Helmand and Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan’s south, two hotbed areas of incredible violence. Please note the location of the town of Quetta which is close to the Afghan border.
Baluchistan is a chaotic place. Its people are very poor, but the region is loaded with mineral wealth. Its people have long wanted autonomy, and have opposed Pakistan. On the other side, Pakistan has tried to reach out, and in the process, has often turned a cheek to Taliban activities there. Its terrain, while largely plateau, can be rough, with many ridges and ravines through which the Taliban can travel fairly freely. All this said, the Balochs continue to turn against Pakistan and have even sought US and Indian help, and some feel it could be an ally. Their problem is they are outnumbered by the Pashtuns.
A bit more to the north are North and South Waziristan of Pakistan. This is a very mountainous region and is entirely populated by Pashtuns, many of whom are very alb warriors. Both Waziristans are part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), considered to be separate from the country's four core provinces. North and South Waziristan are considered “agencies.” There has been friction between the two. Taliban presence in these areas has been of considerable concern for many years.
They border on the Paktika province of Afghanistan. To the north of Paktika is the Afghan province of Ghazni. The routes from the Waziristans through Paktika to Ghazni have proven to be main thoroughfares for enemy logistics movements. I’d like to spend a moment on that, since US forces are in both provinces.
The enemy has been pouring through Paktika province from the Wazirstans with men and supplies for some time. They find many safe havens there and stage their supplies to the north and south. Ghazni straddles a major supply line, sitting between Pakistan and Kabul along Highway 1, which travels between Kabul in the north and Kandahar in the south, and other major routes to and from Pakistan. Many villages in these areas have served as Taliban strongholds for a long time as well. The villages are where the Taliban store their stuff. They stockpile their weapons and bomb making materials. If you pay attention to US engagements, you will see many occur in the Ghazni region.
I have highlighted these two regions to show important areas where logistics supplies move, to give you some sense of terrain, but also to highlight that once the enemy gets its supplies and fighters into Afghanistan, it has many places to hide, most importantly, in the villages.
US and Allied forces therefore have to go into these villages to rout out the enemy and capture their supplies. Routing out the enemy is only one part of the requirement to visit the villages with patrols. Protecting the villagers from the enemy is another. I’ll get to that in a moment.
I first want to highlight from where the enemy is getting its money.
Drug money finances a great deal for the Taliban. We have all heard about the massive opium crop grown in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the number one illicit opium producer in the world. Indeed production has increased since the US arrived in 2001. It’s a great crop for the Taliban as it stores easily and for a long time, most of the most productive fields lie in traditional Taliban stronghold areas, and of course, it fetches a pretty penny. A UN report said the enemy may have stockpiled as much as 10,000 tons of illegal opium worth billions.
You can see from this map the familiar pattern --- the greatest production and greatest risk to our forces are in the provinces in the southeast bordering Pakistan, provinces where US forces have carried a heavy load. Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), described the situation this way:
"There is no rule of law in most of the southern parts of Afghanistan—the bullets rule."
But we must not kid ourselves. Opium money is not enough for the enemy. Money comes to it from a wide variety of sources. In fact, foreign donations are the single largest source of cash for the Taliban. Eric Schmitt reported for The New York Times in October 2009:
“The Taliban in Afghanistan are running a sophisticated financial network to pay for their insurgent operations, raising hundreds of millions of dollars from the illicit drug trade, kidnappings, extortion and foreign donations that American officials say they are struggling to cut off.
“In Afghanistan, the Taliban have imposed an elaborate system to tax the cultivation, processing and shipment of opium, as well as other crops like wheat grown in the territory they control, American and Afghan officials say. In the Middle East, Taliban leaders have sent fund-raisers to Arab countries to keep the insurgency’s coffers brimming with cash.
“Estimates of the Taliban’s annual revenue vary widely. Proceeds from the illicit drug trade alone range from $70 million to $400 million a year, according to Pentagon and United Nations officials. By diversifying their revenue stream beyond opium, the Taliban are frustrating American and NATO efforts to weaken the insurgency by cutting off its economic lifelines, the officials say.
“A third major source of financing for the Taliban is criminal activity, including kidnappings and protection payments from legitimate businesses seeking to operate in Taliban-controlled territory.”
This last point lies at the heart of the Allied complaint about corruption in the Afghan government. Mathew Green reported for Reuters in December 2012, (The US Treasury has said) Haji Khairullah Barakzai … is one of the biggest bankers to the Taliban, the architect of an underground network that converts opium grown in the poppy fields of his native southern Afghanistan into cash … Afghan sources and Western officials familiar with Khairullah painted a portrait of a man with long-standing ties to the Taliban and the drug trade alongside significant legitimate businesses.”
So, they get money from Persian Gulf states and a plethora of contacts in Pakistan and within Afghanistan itself. The Taliban, through private entrepreneurs, is able to siphon off a great deal of foreign aid money and supplies. The Taliban is able to take a cut from many if not most contracts negotiated in Afghanistan, especially in the south, and includes contracts negotiated by US entities. They get enough to feed their troops, provide them transport, medical help, and weapons. The Taliban are able to recruit within Afghanistan and Pakistan, even in Karachi. Pakistan ordnance depots provide a lot of supplies.
A point to be made here is, not only do enemy fighters and supplies enter across the long, porous border, but many people from within Afghanistan itself harbor and protect them, and indeed fund them, and many people from outside Afghanistan feed them massive amounts of money as well.
US officials admit they cannot stop these sources of funding. Mathew Green reported, “Investigators who venture into the region’s forbidding ecosystem of illicit commerce find that lines between legitimate trade and criminality often blur, hand-written ledgers are barely decipherable, and deceptively nondescript offices move mountains of cash.”
I mentioned earlier that US and Allied forces patrol Afghan villages to find the enemy and rout him out, and also to then protect the people of the villages from the enemy. This latter effort is part of what is known as counterinsurgency (COIN). There has been great debate about whether we should be fighting counterinsurgency or counter-terrorism, the latter of which emphasizes finding the enemy and destroying him, while the former emphasizes winning the hearts and minds of the people. I should say here that this same controversy raged during the Indochina War. You might be surprised to learn that back then, the top Marine leadership including Lt. General Lew Walt, USMC, commander the northernmost Quang Tri province argued, in favor of a COIN type operation. Indeed Walt had an action plan called the Combined Action Company (CAC) and had his Marines executing it. He sent squads of Marines into the villages to teach the local militia and help protect the villagers, trying to put the local Communist infrastructure out of business. But General Westmoreland, USA, the first commander of our forces in Vietnam and Walt’s superior, instead wanted to hunt and kill. He prevailed but the Marines still worked hard at COIN. It was a great source of friction between Westmoreland and Walt, and I believe Walt was replaced as a result and Westmoreland eventually inserted Army forces into Quang Tri to augment and then replace the Marines.
“The decisive terrain is the human terrain. The people are the center of gravity. Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF prevail."
Petraeus felt that the attitudes of the Afghan people will be “strategically decisive” in the war.
I make a point of this because it seems that US strategists including senior military officers have had a problem figuring out how best to fight in Afghanistan, and, of course, this has affected our troops, the ROEs, and how our forces train for battle. While both Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, who followed the former, believed strongly in COIN, McChrystal seemed much more strict on enforcement of ROEs, while Petraeus seems as though he wanted to relax those. However, when you read Petraeus’ statements, their foggy at best, at least for the troop on patrol in the thick of it.
This is the problem with ROEs --- they often lack clarity. That is because the people writing them have to play the political game of protecting the civilians and on the other hand have to give the trooper on the ground a chance to survive.
The tough issues for the troops in battle arise when they receive interpretations of this broad guidance in the form of directives and commands from their immediate leaders, and when they have to make split-second decisions in the heat of battle. Somehow, our forces are able to implement all this stuff, but it is also true that many of them don’t like it and many of them find the guidance ambiguous and risky.
Jason Motlagh wrote for Time magazine in August 6, 2010, and said this:
“Now, rather than loosen the rules of engagement as many would have preferred, General Petraeus has tightened them. Under General McChrystal, NATO forces were prohibited from calling in air strikes or artillery fire on village compounds where the enemy might have been mixed in with civilians. Going several steps better, General Petraeus has reportedly expanded the ban on air strikes and artillery fire to all types of buildings, tree-lined areas and hillsides where it is difficult to distinguish who is on the ground.”
In August 2010, Petraeus issued formal COIN Guidance to the field. It covered many topics. With regard to fighting, his guidance was as follows:
“Pursue the enemy relentlessly. Together with our Afghan partners, get our teeth into the insurgents and don’t let go. When the extremists fight, make them pay. Seek out and eliminate those who threaten the population. Don’t let them intimidate the innocent. Target the whole network, not just individuals.
“Fight hard and fight with discipline. Hunt the enemy aggressively, but use only the firepower needed to win a fight. We can’t win without fighting, but we also cannot kill or capture our way to victory. Moreover, if we kill civilians or damage their property in the course of our operations, we will create more enemies than our operations eliminate. That’s exactly what the Taliban want. Don’t fall into their trap. We must continue our efforts to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum.”
“Be a good guest. Treat the Afghan people and their property with respect. Think about how we drive, how we patrol, how we relate to people, and how we help the community. View our actions through the eyes of the Afghans and, together with our partners, consult with elders before pursuing new initiatives and operations.
“Walk. Stop by, don’t drive by. Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population. Take off your sunglasses. Situational awareness can only be gained by interacting face-to-face, not separated by ballistic glass or Oakleys.”
With this guidance, staff below have to write implementing ROEs. These ROEs rank among the top complaints of Soldiers and Marines on the ground. The major issue has to do with being as sure as one can be, in some cases dead sure, that the person targeted is clearly identified as an enemy combatant. Awr Hawkins, reporting for Breitbart on October 28, 2012, recounted what one soldier told him:
“During the Bush administration, we were able to engage terrorists planting IEDs with greater ease. Now, if we see two guys on the side of the road and it looks like they're planting an IED, we are told to wait -- because they might be farmers.”
Returning to Philip Smucker who reported for the World Security Network, Smucker noted that Lieutenant Colonel O'Donnell said, “They (the enemy) are too savvy to fire at our helicopters when we pass overhead and we believe they often move men and arms in at different border crossings so as to avoid detection.” Smucker added, “The US military will rarely bomb a column of fighters without knowing precisely who they are and what arms they have stored.” One intelligence officer said, "These guys are not living in caves. We simply can't distinguish them because they are co-mingling with the local population."
Paul Szoldra, a Marine Afghan vet with two tours, wrote about the problem on August 2012. He wrote that one officer said this:
“We are willing to restrict ourselves to the point of helplessness to avoid even a possibility of civilian casualties. I have personally watched the same man arm and disarm 12 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) over a week, with no strikes allowed due to collateral concerns.”
He went on to write:
“Despite being experts at warfare, the military, much like a professional boxer, will never win a fight when their hands are tied behind their back. Unfortunately, it is our own Generals and politicians that have done the tying. (An officer said), ‘We’ve embraced the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine without remembering to maintain the true power of the US military, which is an unstoppable killing machine. Now the buzz words are ‘development’ [and] ‘partnership’. These things brief well, but they must be used hand in hand with a tolerant and permissive ROE that allows us to flex our full potential when we need to.’ ”
Generals McChrystal and Petraeus called it the “disciplined use of force.”
General Petraeus wrote:
“Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause."
Perhaps so, but one is compelled to wonder how many Allied soldiers have been lost because they were restricted in battle. The enemy is aware of these rules, and uses them to his advantage.
Here you see U.S. Marines from B/1-2 Marines calling in an air strike during a battle near Musa Qaleh, in northern Helmand Province in July 2012. I urge you dig through some You Tube videos of the intense coordination that occurs to get an air strike in --- it is quite time consuming with everyone trying to touch all the bases dictated by the ROE.
The COIN approach, especially as described by Petraeus, demands a lot of dismounted foot patrols, whereas the counterterrorism strategy can involve greater use of air power and airborne assaults. I am going to describe what it is like to be on a foot patrol in a bit, but first want to talk about the dangers and repercussions.
Dismounted foot patrols have resulted in dramatic increases in arm and leg amputations, genital injuries, and the loss of multiple limbs according to an AP report of September 2011, the result of Improvised Explosive Devices, IEDs.
There is little in this war that worries our forces more than the IED. As you can imagine from the above photo, all one of those men had to do was step on a pressure plate that detonated an IED straight up their legs and into their body.
As one Marine said, “Those IEDs would cut a Marine in half.” I will refer to this more than once in this report. Our young fighting men are very fearful of losing limbs, but they are most fearful of losing their “manhood.” It is common for friends on a patrol to make a pact with each other that if one of them loses his manhood, the other should let him die, or even kill him.
My guess, however, is that in the end most want to live. Many tie tourniquets around their legs in case they step on a pressure plate --- this would help them or their colleagues rapidly apply the tourniquet to tie off their “bloody stumps.”
The military employs what is called a “Tactical Tourniquet,” such as shown here. The important aspect of this kind of tourniquet is ease of application while under considerable stress. It is also important to reduce the risk of tourniquet failure. The application process is simple and straight forward. It is also designed to prevent accidental release during tactical movement; in other words, a soldier might apply the tourniquet to himself while under fire, and then he has to move quickly to get out of the killing zone. He may even have to fight with it on.
I labored a long time as to whether to show graphically what IED caused amputations look like before the doctors get to repair them. I decided not to do it. That said, I recommend you look at some of the photography as distasteful as that will be. Randall Moore, a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist posted graphic injury photography in “My Afghanistan Blog,” entitled, “The reality of war.” He labored the same as I did about showing such photography, and said this, more eloquently than I could have done:
“Up until now, I've decided not to share photographs depicting injured patients. After quite a bit of reflection, I feel this was a mistake. This blog was created to share what it is like to provide combat causality care in Afghanistan. These photographs offer perhaps the most vivid illustration of what is happening in Afghanistan. Below you will see some of the less graphic photographs that I have taken since I've been here. However, some of the readers may feel that these pictures are difficult to look at.”
I commend his photography to you. I warn you: he is showing the lesser injuries and they are horrific to look at.
I will only show you this drawing, done by Victor Juhasz, an illustrator, a member of the USAF Art Program and Society of Illustrators. I commend Juhasz’s drawing portfolio of injured GIs to you. This shows Sgt. Jason M. Ross, USMC, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) specialist. As you can see, he lost both legs above the knee. He also sustained injuries to both arms. Juhasz wrote:
“The physical therapist had just removed the cast off one arm and was testing the flexibility of the hand and wrist. It was evident from Sgt. Ross's expressions that it did not feel good. But he was game. His surgeon paid a visit while Jeff Fisher, Michael Fay and I were drawing him. Outside the room she reiterated her awe of Sgt. Ross, classifying him as her most extreme case to have survived an IED since 9-11. She ascribed his survival to the tenacity of his spirit.”
In typical GI fashion, troops will often say that one who suffers from a catastrophic injury such as loss of limbs had his “day spoiled.” I would say so.
It is crucial to understand that ours is not a Maginot Line military. Our men and women do live in compounds and inside fortifications, but our military prefers to maneuver, to be seen, gain the trust of locals, collect intelligence, detect and dismantle mines and IEDs, and also hunt and kill enemy. Furthermore, they need to expand their area of control, they have to keep the lines of communications open. They cannot do these things from fortifications. They have to “push out.” Ours is a military always moving about in some fashion, and more often than not, they have to go out by foot into territory they know to be hostile and dangerous. This is why Afghan President Karzai’s demand that US forces leave the villages is not only out of line with the overall COIN strategy, it is also out of line with the way our soldiers are trained to conduct business.
Jon Boone of The Guardian wrote this in July 2011:
“The threat of IEDs have come to shape nearly everything in this war.”
Let me try to show you some photography of what we’re talking about here with the IED. These are not trivial weapons. These photos reflect various levels of lethality. Their lethality and sophistication have increased through the 11 years of war.
As a general rule, most ground patrols are conducted by the Army and Marines. However, Navy medical corpsmen travel with Marine patrols, Air Force combat controllers travel with both Army and Marine forces, and they go out on their own to provide air support to those forces. All the services are contributing to conducting convoys as well, and of course, we have special forces from all the services out there sneaking in the weeds.
Few, if any, men or women who go on these patrols will deny that they get butterflies in the stomach. Back in 2010, SSgt. Christopher Gehart said, “You grow up quick out here. You’ve got to. You can’t be a little kid when your buddy gets blown up next to you.”
As I mentioned, the US military, along with several of its Allies like the British, are maneuvering militaries. They have their combat outposts and forward operating bases, but they go on patrol quite often to “push out the bubble” of security. They deliberately go into areas they know to be infested with enemy and IEDs. They are trying to extend their area of control and the area of protection they can afford villagers, and themselves. The only way to do that is to “push out.”
These “push outs” include going into villages and areas where NATO forces have never been.
That was very apparent in a CBS “60 Minutes” report done by Laura Logan in August 2010. I have taken video clips from the “60 Minutes” report --- I commend the entire video to you; it’s very well done. Logan spent a month with an element of the 101 Airborne at a small outpost, Combat Outpost (COP) Wilderness, close to the Pakistan border. I really have to admire her bravado --- she was not at Disneyland. The troops described it as a “hornets’ nest” of enemy. Their small outpost was sandwiched between mountains. The enemy was intent on destroying it, rocketing and mortaring it, attacking it almost daily.
The terrain was very difficult, and they would climb for hours, often encountering no enemy, but signaling to the enemy that they were there and they would keep coming out. The captain said, “The terrain here will kick your ass. It’s not a joke (even though he was smiling). And you can feel it in your lungs, feel it in, you get that feeling in your chest, you feel like (and then he blew out air). Every day.”
On one night, an Apache helicopter flew armed reconnaissance near the outpost and identified a group of men, some armed with RPGs. The captain ordered him to engage. That in turn started an intense battle. Here again, the men reacted by pushing out, at night. Once daylight broke, they could see the enemy killed by the Apache. But then they came under fire, almost trapping some against a mountain wall.
Instead of sitting there, they kept moving out. They pursued their enemy through small but dense cornfields amidst the mountains. The enemy was close enough that the soldiers employed hand grenades against them. Walking through the cornfields, the soldier can see almost nothing, and it is easy to lose a sense of direction. The problem for them was they knew the enemy was hiding somewhere in there. Indeed, as a group moved through, they came under fire. The first sergeant found himself close to a ditch, and saw an enemy in there, and killed him. At almost the same time, a soldier close to him was hit in the shoulder, and the call went out for medics.
A medevac chopper arrived within minutes. The wounded soldier was lucky because the bullet went right through his shoulder, so the medics found it easy to stabilize him, get his arm in a sling, and walk him to the helicopter. When it was over, Kilbride’s men had killed at least 12 enemy, with only one of their own wounded.
The troops found what turned out to be an enemy movie camera in the cornfield, and it gave them enormous intelligence. The enemy took video of their forces, which amounted to about 50 heavily armed fighters, many foreigners, most probably from Pakistan where they find sanctuary. The video showed solid discipline and organization, and many new kinds of weapons. This is one of their video shots.
Their video also showed how the enemy surveilled US forces in the area, it reflected some of their attacks, and training. One video shot I saw was at close range, of a group of US soldiers standing, completely vulnerable to attack, but instead the enemy simply filmed them for later analysis. This “startled” Capt. Kilbride a little when he saw it, but he commented, quite professionally I thought, that it was interesting to see where the enemy set up for its video shoot.
Air power, especially what is called close air support (CAS), has been a core feature of the Afghan war. Pilots obtain great satisfaction from helping and protecting fellow service members on the ground and punishing those trying to kill them. One pilot, however, commented, “Often you arrive to a smoking hole and guys calling for medevac, and (in a jet or attack helicopter) you feel pretty helpless.”
Pilots with advanced technology can often watch a firefight from the cockpit, from many miles away, employing infrared sensors. One pilot said he could sense the confusion on the ground in the midst of a firefight. The enemy was tough to pick out and track. Three Afghan outposts were under simultaneous fire. There was one American ground controller.
Lt. Paul Oyler, USN, a F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot, said the enemy would hide under trees in the gullies and used tree lines as a means of cover and concealment to move closer to our forces. Oyler commented, “It was the biggest firefight I had ever seen. For the next two and a half hours we were overhead and doing our best to track it.”
Two more F/A-18s arrived, but none of them could drop their bombs because they could not be exactly sure where to put them. So they strafed, each strafe about 150-200 rounds, working in sections until they cleared the whole area. The F/A-18s ran low on fuel but two USAF A-10 Warthogs arrived to take over. The battle ended.
This is a photo of an A-10 firing his Gatling gun, among the most lethal guns in use today. I enjoin you to watch an USAF A-10 Warthog working his tail off to follow directions from the ground against another target. The interchanges are fast and furious because the men on the ground were fully engaged and, it sounded, in a heap of trouble.
The pilot kept repeating the ground controller’s instructions; the operator on the ground kept giving him instructions, the pilot would warn he would be firing “danger close,” to wit very close to friendlies, yet the man on the ground would clear him in hot. The pilot would tell the man on the ground he was coming in hot to warn him --- “Roger, cleared hot west of the grove baby” would be a response. Every once in a while, you will hear the attack aircraft’s systems, a woman’s recorded voice, warning the pilot of his low altitude, and telling him to pull up. Incredible to watch, five minutes of massive tension and attack.
In July 2010, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, USA, limited the use of airpower to reduce civilian casualties. Close air support (CAS) missions fell drastically because of his restrictions. This was a controversial decision. General David Petraeus supported CAS, saying in May 2011 CAS responsiveness went from “great to exceptional.” The issue centered on the COIN requirement to befriend the citizens, and too often CAS missions resulted in killing them. So the US found itself owning the skies and having the most powerful aircraft in the world, yet unable to employ them the way they thought they had been intended. It turned out, I believe, that the USAF-USN and Army had to come together to try to figure out the safest way to support the ground forces and keep innocents alive. The problem remains with us to this day. If you watch videos of air attacks, it might well drive you crazy at how long it takes to confirm that the target is enemy and there are no civilians or what are known as collateral buildings in the area --- you’ll find yourself hollering, “Hurry up, c’mon before the enemy gets away.” But that is how careful our air forces and ground controllers are these days.
That said, do not misunderstand. CAS is being provided. Here is an unlikely participant, the B-1B Lancer strategic bomber, designed to carry nuclear warheads. It has not been used in that role but instead has been employed tactically. One squadron of B-1Bs flew over Afghanistan for six months during 2012 and responded to more than 500 troops-in-contact situations, some as close as 300 meters from friendly forces, and responded to another 700 priority air requests delivering more than 400 weapons on target. The B1-Bs performed exceedingly well. Among other modifications, it received what is called the “Sniper Pod,” which is a long-range precision targeting system which provides positive target identification, autonomous tracking, coordinate generation and precise weapons guidance from extended standoff ranges supporting air to ground operations, to wit, CAS.
C.J. Chivers, reporting for The New York Times in January 2012, said this:
“The use of air power has changed markedly during the long Afghan conflict, reflecting the political costs and sensitivities of civilian casualties caused by errant or indiscriminate strikes and the increasing use of aerial drones, which can watch over potential targets for extended periods with no risk to pilots or more expensive aircraft.
“Fighter jets with pilots, however, remain an essential component of the war, in part because little else in the allied arsenal is considered as versatile or imposing, and because of improvements in the aircraft’s sensors.”
Today, many missions end up being surveillance missions, and when enemy is spotted or when directions are received from a ground controller, jet aircraft such as the F-15E, F-16, F/A-18, AV-8 Harrier, and B-1s will fly “show of force” missions at very low altitude over the enemy telling the enemy they have been spotted, and targeted, and would be wise to leave. The aircraft will often fire off flares to cause the enemy to pay closer attention. This has required a whole new mentality. In the initial days of war, destroying enemy targets and killing enemy was the name of the game. Now COIN is the strategy.
Cmdr. Layne McDowell, USN, an F/A-18 pilot said, “So much has changed from when I was here the first time. Now I prefer not dropping — if I can accomplish the mission other ways.” Chivers reported that of 953 CAS missions flown by the F/A-18 from the USS Stennis, aircraft employed weapons only 17 times.
For those patrols on the ground, and for pilots itching to support them with their enormous attack capabilities, this all can be very frustrating. McDowell said that he arrived at a target from which friendly forces were receiving hostile fire. It was a compound next to other compounds. The ground troops put a smoke marker right on the target. McDowell saw it and could easily have honed in on it. But he and the people on the ground agreed they did not know if there were any innocent civilians inside. There was also some discussion over collateral damage that might be caused to the neighbors, so a lethal attack was called off. The ground force was on its own.
I’ll end this difficult discussion here. Let’s move on to another tough one.
His was a most depressing report. He talked of Afghan National Security Forces (Army and Police), the ANSF, refusing to chase down enemy or even shoot the enemy because it was too dangerous, and he talked of the contempt held by many US soldiers toward the ANSF. He spoke of his troops losing their comrades, of his commissioned and non-commissioned officers anxious over asking their men to go out on patrol, and of soldiers hoping they could get through the day, wondering where on their body they would be shot or hit. And yes, there are many concerns about being killed by the very Afghans they were training. And perhaps worst of all, many troops questioned the quality of the leadership at the higher levels, especially in Washington and at the senior officer level.
I have not read his report. But I do know that many of our fighting forces do worry about what they’re doing. And frankly, they know that many at home simply do not care. I should also note that many Afghans have displayed enormous resentment toward their American allies. Some of this resentment has resulted in what are known as “blue on green” or “insider” tracks against Americans, often resulting in Afghans killing the very people who are training them. There were 61 Allied forces killed in 45 insider attacks in 2012, an increase from 35 the previous year. These insider attacks have changed the calculus of how long the US should stay in Afghanistan and how many, if any, should stay beyond the withdrawal date. After all, the mission is already transitioning to training and likely would be a training only mission after the withdrawal date.
The quality of the Afghan forces who are now leading many combined NATO-Afghan patrols is worrisome. This photo shows a group of Afghan Army soldiers on break while out with a British patrol. As soon as they break, they sit down and light up drugs, opium or hashish. The video from which I grabbed this showed several of them smoking, then bouncing up, grabbing their weapon, going outside and firing off rounds, often into the air, like wild drunkards, at a time when the British had been warning them they were running low on ammo. Then the Afghan would run back behind a wall laughing. Very disconcerting.
Conducting these patrols is hard enough. Going out with dopers is not good. Let’s hope the British commander refused to send his men out with these idiots.
Getting wounded in a fight poses many tough problems. First, someone has to try to get the wounded colleague out of what is known as the killing zone. The enemy will often try to finish off the wounded soldier and hit those trying to get at him. There are countless times when those who rush out under heavy fire to aid a wounded colleague cover the wounded man with their own body to prevent him from getting hit again, then drag him to a safer place, then administer to him, then try to get him out of the killing zone.
For those who might not know, Navy medics, known as corpsmen, are embedded with Marines and go out with them on patrols. In this photo, you see U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Lamonte Hammond and Petty Officer 3rd Class Simon Trujillo with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment treat a Marine who was wounded during a firefight in the Nawa district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, on August 14, 2009. Navy corpsmen are first responders to wounded Marines on the battlefield.
In another instance, a Navy corpsmen had been shot through his left arm and enemy fire was coming from almost every angle. His Marines had the task of getting to him. But initially they could not. They were pinned down by a sniper. Fortunately, they had Major J. Van Wyk, a Marine pilot, on the ground with them as a combat controller. He had Lt. Commander Thomas E. Hoyt on his way in with his F/A-18 such as shown here. After a pass over the area, Hoyt did not like what he saw and heard on the radio. The situation on the ground was bad. Van Wyk asked him to a put a 500 lb. bomb on one of the buildings close by from which enemy fighters were holding down the Marines. This attack was going to be “danger close,” because Marines were going to be very close to Hoyt’s target, no room for error.
Hoyt was watching the fight on his infrared and offered to feed the view to Van Wyk to help him control the attack, but Van Wyk’s batteries had run out on his laptop computer, so he could not receive the transmission. So Hoyt decided to first make a low pass at about 500 ft. and 550 mph right over the enemy as a “show of force,” hoping to intimidate the enemy. He released a flare over the building to mark it. He did that two more times. This photo shows an USAF F-15 doing the same thing, to give you the idea.
The enemy stayed in position and kept firing at the Marines.
So that was it, time to get nasty. The Marines “popped smoke” to mark the enemy’s positions. Hoyt and his Marine ground controller agreed to strafing passes instead of employing the bomb. Hoyt made two passes strafing the target with 460 rounds in a couple long bursts. This slowed down the enemy enough to enable the Marines to identify a landing zone for a medevac helicopter.
The enemy broke off the attack.
To everyone’s amazement, women and children emerged from the building the enemy was using, and Van Wyk and Hoyt were happy they decided not to bomb the building. The corpsman was medevac’d out and the Marines were able to leave.
Many patrols go through some real wilderness and desolate country. Here you see Pfc. Jacob Adams (left) and Spc. Artem Boyev (right), both infantrymen assigned to Company C, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team “Rakkasans,” 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), provide overwatch security as their fellow infantrymen search for signs of insurgent activity in the mountains near Combat Outpost Bowri Tana, Afghanistan, November 30, 2012.
They often walk on well used paths, which can present a major IED threat. You can see that many of the soldiers walk carefully, slowly but steadily, perhaps 20 ft. separating them when in single file. They are usually led by the minesweeper, and many will walk in the footsteps of the man in front of them.
Most certainly when in a village, the men on patrol will stop, look around, then proceed. Most carry their weapons pointed downward, except for those carrying heavy weapons.
I watched a patrol on a video, it looked sizable to me, in Khost Province. It came under brief fire. It looked as though most of the men simply stood there for a moment, looking around, trying to identify the source of the fire, and then they would receive instructions to disperse once they discovered the source. My reaction was “take cover,” but no, they first stopped to look around and assess. Then the hostile fire picked up. The leader instructed someone by radio to not lose sight of one source of fire. Very businesslike. They considered it very important to “get eyes on him.” They also had to make sure each of the elements, which were dispersed, knew where the others were, and where they were going, so as to not put friendlies in their line of fire. The coordination was quick, to the point, again, very professional.
Many of the men stay behind stone walls. Here they are watching someone from a building in a village. The officer gives the word, “Clear to fire. Roger. Clear to fire.” They talk about locations in terms of grids. Fire picks up, another group of soldiers goes through some tall fields, semi-crouched, stopping, kneeling when the fire seems to pick up.
An officer is in contact with air, and passes on a specific grid location from where the fire is coming. The air rolls in and hits the target. The hostile fire breaks off. The men then converge on the village, talk to the people, trying to find out who was shooting at them. In this case, the villagers claimed ignorance. The patrol moved on.
Now over in the Korengal in Laui Kalay, Kunar Province. This time, a patrol is ambushed under heavy fire. The men take cover behind whatever they can find. One gets on the radio and starts barking instructions. Some of the men fire, without taking much aim.
One soldier almost gets hit in the head twice, the footage looked like the shots just missed him. Here you see him in the process of falling behind the wall. He knew he had almost taken one in the head. They call to each other asking if anyone can see the shooter(s). At this moment, no one sees him. The patrol is broken into sections, and each reports in where they are. A helicopter arrives and puts the enemy under fire. The leaders on the ground start moving their men in a hurry to new positions while others provide cover fire. The helicopter circles, the men on the ground continue firing. Some hold for a moment to drink some water. Smoke rises from a ridge across from them. The helicopter has gotten his man. The fight breaks off.
Another patrol in Kunar province gets ambushed, A/2-327 Infantry. This company, at Combat Outpost Monti, named after Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti, KIA June 21, 2006, had been under attack since it arrived. As an aside, many combat outposts are named after the Fallen. One platoon from the company moved out mounted on combat vehicles to oversee a polling site and was ambushed in a spot where ambushes occurred frequently. The convoy moved down through a steep valley. One of the vehicles had a man operating a grenade launcher through the turret of his vehicle.
As he was firing, he was hit in the helmet by enemy fire and dropped from the turret, cursing that he was hit. His colleagues in the vehicle checked him out, he was dazed, but his helmet saved him, the back of his head bleeding mildly. His colleague wrapped his head in gauze. He looked to his colleagues like he might be the victim of a traumatic brain injury, this his third concussion, but outwardly to me, he looked a bit dazed, but with his wits about him. A look at the inside of his helmet could only draw a “holy shit.” Whatever hit him almost made it through. Another in the vehicle jumped up into the firing position, was told to keep his head low, but also was told to start firing.
Back to the fight. Another truck at the foot of the mountain was hit and was on fire. The troops removed the injured and started working on them. They called for a liter and broke one out. The men used the trucks as cover, one communicating back to base what was happening, others providing cover fire.
The driver was the most seriously wounded, and was carried on the liter to a vehicle used for wounded. He had lost his right arm and a tourniquet was applied. Another struggled with a concussion and was helped to the same safe area. A couple soldiers went to the lead vehicle, they hopped in and one started driving. They had to get the whole convoy moving. They left the burning vehicle behind and, the logjam broken, the convoy started moving out, as fast as it could. A lot of locals lined the road as the convoy flew out and I must say the troops inside the convoy were none too complimentary toward them.
Once they got to a safe place, a medevac helicopter arrived and evacuated the man who lost his arm to the trauma hospital at Bagram AB. The men tried to relax, some still a bit dazed, few knowing what actually happened. They complained of being unable to see through the smoke and the intensity of the small arms fire coming their way.
As I watched these videos, and the video cannot cover everything, I was struck by the professionalism of the soldiers, even when under intense fire. While I am sure they were not calm, for the most part they sure looked calm. They did some shouting over the gunfire, they yelled into their radios, and there was a fair share of the “King’s English.” But the men seem prepared to react, even when ambushed. They went to positions, they broke out maps and compasses, they got on the radio, they looked for their enemy. If they have only a general location, they just fire into that location, hoping to force the enemy to show himself.
I might comment that on many patrols, an ambush ends almost as fast as it starts. Some fights go on for many hours, even days, but others just last a matter of tens of minutes. By the time the Allies get their eyes focused on the source of fire, the enemy breaks off and runs away, especially if they hear a helicopter or jet fighter coming. Quite often, our forces are attacked by only a few enemy, who are in a kind of hit and run mode. Our forces take each attack very seriously.
Patrolling in the bazaar is filled with risk. There are many people walking and mingling around the area. It is hard to tell who is who. I’ve watched videos of our forces walking through bizarres.
Some show one soldier mingling among 50 or more Afghans. Or a single vehicle with a .50 cal mount driving through a massive amount of people in close quarters, at very slow speeds.
An attack in the center of Khost occurred in a midst of a crowded bazaar. One enemy was wearing a suicide vest. A patrol in rough single column approached the area in which the suicide bomber was located and he detonated. In this instance, the bomber approached the patrol just before pulling the trigger. Nineteen Allied security forces were killed, three American, sixteen Afghans.
The challenges facing our forces on patrol with regard to civilians are formidable. We have already discussed the problems associated with the use of airpower. There are also issues associated with being fired at from a building but having to be sure there are no civilians inside before returning fire.
Another set of these challenges has to do with “targeting children.” The troops know that children are helping the enemy. Children in Afghanistan have shown hostile intent. They have carried chemicals needed for making explosives. They have dug holes for IEDs. They have been involved in suicide bombings. This photo shows a young Afghan boy at a Taliban training center. The Taliban used this photo to entice other kids to join. It’s hard to tell what is on the lad’s mind, but his eyes show a very sad young boy.
The problem is deciding who is a legitimate target. Debate has arisen over even the phrase “legitimate target” when applied to a child. Some argue there is no such thing; i.e., no child is a legitimate target.
Children have legal protections under international law. Some argue that identifying children as having potential hostile intent and then targeting them is unlawful. I found an example where Marines watched children digging the dirt to plant IEDs and targeted them. Human rights lawyers claim this was illegal.
The problem grows as you watch our forces patrol down a main dirt drag of a small village. The patrol is often immediately surrounded by children, many wanting to try their English, many just wanting to mingle with the troops, most of them laughing and smiling.
On many occasions the troops walk through narrow passages in a village, and the kids will tag along. You can see some of the soldiers trying to tell the kids to get out of the area, but most of the kids don’t understand or don’t want to comply. Patrol members also will try to ask the kids if they know where the Taliban is, or if they know where bombs might be located. The language barrier gets formidable. The kids look innocent enough, but it has to linger in a soldier’s mind whether that child is so innocent. I heard one British soldier yelling at one of his comrades, telling him to back away from the kids and get on with the patrol.
Frankly, this is hard for many American soldiers. American GIs have long been known to love being with the kids, giving them candy, trying to befriend them and even showing them affection, and sometimes providing them medical care. I have long felt the American military member is among our very best ambassadors abroad, but the GI is taking a risk; my guess is the GIs are often led by their intuition.
When patrolling through villages, quite often our forces, along with their Afghan Allies, must break into homes. There is a “knock-on” rule which prohibits knocking down a door, but instead requires knocking on the door first. Captain Max Ferguson, USA, said:
“We hate going through doorways. Every time I take a step through one of those I flinch. It's just a role of the dice whether you are going to step on anything."
The enemy is known to hang around the poppy fields, especially when the fields near harvest time. Allied forces therefore go into and through the fields and patrols looking for enemy. They have not gotten involved in destroying the fields on these occasions, as their mission was to find enemy. Providing regional security has been seen as more important than destroying the crop. On other occasions, Allied forces have helped Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) clear the fields. On some of these occasions they have found IEDs hidden in the fields.
There has been one benefit of going through the fields. The troops have gotten to know the farmers and the children and have obtained useful intelligence from them voluntarily in return for providing the security.
Breaking in replacements is another tough business. Back in August 2010, men from the C/2-508th Parachute Infantry, 82 Airborne, were turning over their area of responsibility in Kandahar’s Arghandab River Valley to B-Battery, 1-320th Field Artillery, 101 Airborne, artillery professionals tasked to fight as infantry. Everyone knows that at the end of the day, every Soldier and Marine is infantry. But if you don’t do it every day, one can get rusty.
The men from the 508th knew the area would be bomb infested. They called it “The Devil’s Playground.” They went out on their first patrol together with the 101 men, thirty-six strong, leaving Combat Outpost Tynes.
They took over an abandoned compound. It was 100 degrees and only 11 a.m. While they had taken the compound, the challenge was to exit the compound and back get out on patrol. The more experienced 2-508 guys knew the enemy would be zeroed in on them. By monitoring enemy radios, they learned that the outside of the compound was probably laced with bombs. They decided to send a team of eight 82 Airborne led by a bomb sniffing dog, and two 101 Airborne guys would stay back as a quick reaction force (QRF) while the rest launched out a door and into tangled fields.
They came under fire as the doors opened and they returned it on the way out. An IED blew off, one soldier losing both legs. A 101 medic responded and started taking care of his first combat casualty. In went an IV needle for fluids to prevent shock, tourniquets were applied along with bandages, and the call was made for a medevac.
A group of colleagues put the soldier on a stretcher and ran him off to a safe area for a medevac landing. The helicopter zoomed in, picked up the wounded soldier, and buzzed off. The fight broke off. The soldiers combed the field for the wounded soldier’s equipment and legs. They found some of each, and returned to their original outpost. By the time they got there, the wounded soldier was in surgery at Kandahar Airfield, and doing well.
I’ll pause just a moment. We can all imagine the horror of losing both legs. A British reporter embedded with our forces commented about what we would never think of:
“One unfortunate soldier had come in two days previously having lost both his legs. In obvious discomfort he could not so much writhe in pain as wriggle slightly. A nurse had to turn him over to help him defecate and to re-dress his horrific wounds.”
Two days later, they had to go on patrol again. The men of the 82nd didn’t want to go out, but they knew they had to or their replacements from the 101 would take the beating if there were to be one. Sgt. Andrew Bragg said, “I don’t want my guys going … I’ll go for them. I want revenge. It’s not worth another casualty, but I personally want to go.” Sgt. Adam Lachance said, “I don’t want to see people get blown up, because that sucks. I don’t think that this entire war is worth losing people for, so that sums it up for me.” Staff Sergeant Rosa, a senior squad leader, said, “This is a tough one for me. This is my third deployment with this platoon, and this is the first time we’ve gone through all this bullshit with casualties. My guys have been going out every day. We’ve lost a lot. But at the same time, we can’t lose ground. Especially with the unit coming in. They need a good handoff. They could get slaughtered out there. If I gotta go out, and I’m going out with this group here, that’s fine with me. When we cross that second canal, I think there’s going to be so much shit set in there, we’re going to have a catastrophic IED that’s going to take out a bunch of people.”
The following are a few video grabs from an Atlantic magazine embedded journalist who went out on this last patrol for the 2-508th.
Out they went, 36 strong again, twelve from the 82nd, 23 from the 101, and one Navy dog handler. They went out at dawn, still dark, and made it to the abandoned compound yet again.
Again monitoring enemy radios, they learned the enemy was preparing to attack. They received some harassment fire, and returned it, but were told to save their ammo for the real fight.
Then hostile fire came from a tree line, and the troops replied. One of them called a Kiowa helicopter and asked him to lay down rockets and cannon fire. They then received hostile mortar and rocket fire, and responded with tube-launched grenades.
The problem was they did not want to remain inside the compound, but they did not want to go out. Then a group from the 101 launched out. Immediately several, not used to the heat with their packs, started losing steam, and one passed out. Then another. One stopped breathing. The medic hit him with the IV right away. Then two more went down. The QRF had to respond and come out as well.
I’m going to skip over a lot of details, and there are a lot of them. They ran out of IV bags, nearly ran out of water, and were low on machine gun ammunition. They wanted to call in air, but feared doing so because of the dangers of the air killing civilians. But the 82nd guys had had their fill, and called it in.
Medevac flights came in and brought some supplies and took out those wounded or incapacitated through overheating. Three Black Hawks brought in reinforcements. Quite often, the Blackhawks and Chinooks are escorted by Apache attack helicopters. Quite often, the medevac and supply flights take considerable fire, and the Apaches’ job is to suppress the enemy attacks.
In this battle, the Taliban started to leave under fire. The reinforcement stood guard while the men left on the patrol worked their way back to their outpost. The pressure plates of hidden bombs did their job. Two soldiers lost their legs, another lost a leg and some fingers, and shrapnel scarred two more in the face, all in less than an hour.
All in all, one helluva tough fight. One from the 82nd criticized the 101, which he had been doing more than once. A senior NCO from the 101 responded:
“We appreciate all you guys have done, we really do. What I don’t appreciate, what gives me the ass, is your holier-than-thou attitude that we’re incompetent and unprepared for this mission. Roger. I got that. We’re a field artillery unit tasked with an infantry job. Are we going to take casualties? Hell yeah, we are. We know that. Don’t count us out. We’re a fighting force. We’re not going to leave you hanging. We evacuated our guys, but we brought you 20 more.”
And this day was over.
An Airman First Class Tactical Air Controller, such as Senior Airman Brad Salazar shown here, was with the soldiers and was hollering instructions on the radio to the F-15s because the noise of the fight was so loud. Then the airman had to stop and told the pilots to “Stand by.” The F-15s orbited overhead, awaiting instructions from the airman.
Once the airman came back on the radio, huffing and puffing, he asked the F-15s to smoke in on a show of force flight at high speed and low altitude. This would cover a medevac helicopter ingress to pick up the wounded and the rest of the patrol.
The show of force broke off the fight, the helicopters got in, and extracted everyone.
The airman who left the radio did so for a good reason. He saw a soldier shot badly in the legs, and ran over to him. He picked up the soldier and carried him to a covered position under deadly fire. It turned out that the airman ran back and forth retrieving several wounded soldiers, administering water, and doing his best to help them out. So that accounted for the “standby.” But in the end, the “standby” was over and he brought the F-15s in.
Quite unlike this, I watched a video of F/2-4 Marines patrolling through villages in southern Musa Qali’eh district, Helmand Province, a highly dangerous place to visit. Here you see 2-4 Marines patrolling through the streets of Shah Karez city during Operation Alekhine's Gun in the Musa Qaleh, February 10, 2012. The patrol was one of many working to clear enemy plagued areas. The patrol walked in single file, quite a distance between each member, and I was struck by the silence of their patrol. You could hear dogs, some Afghans talking, you could see some Afghans watching, but it was the silence that hit me. Hand signals used. Quite tense for this editor. During this patrol, they found numerous weapons caches and an estimated 150 pounds of black tar heroin.
I watched another video that was equally quiet, British 4th Battalion, The Highlanders, Royal Regiment of Scotland, patrolling single file through farmland. The farmland is dotted by occasional tree lines, good positions for the enemy to hide. I noticed the last man in the patrol swinging back and forth, often stopping, pointing his rifle at a spot or two. At one point, he seemed worried about a stack of hay (center of the video), and he stopped, gazed at it for a minute or two, seemed ready to engage at a moment’s notice, and then he decided to move on.
Noticing that he had lagged behind, the rest of the men crouched down, spread out a but, and waited for him to either engage or return. In this case he returned and on they went.
Another patrol, the British 42 Commando, arrived at a mud-stone wall and spread out along the wall. They spotted men moving, heard gunfire, and then one yelled out, “Check fire, check fire, friendlies.” Another retorted, “Yep, I’ve got ‘em.” The other friendlies were engaged with the enemy. It turned out they had stopped a suicide bomber on a motorcycle. The hostile fire was probably intended to divert their attention while the motorcycle would race through and detonate. That enemy plan did not work.
Let’s switch gears for a moment.
The British have a way with words. I found a most direct report on what living conditions are like at a patrol base. This report talked about living in a local Afghan farming compound, 40 x 40 meters surrounded by a 10 ft. mud wall, thick and strong. The rooms were made of mud. The base was occupied mostly by British forces, with one female medic. She got her own sleeping space but otherwise was right in there with the men. Sentry posts were erected around the compound. The water well was infested with e-coli bacteria. The troops use that water for their solar powered shower.
One author wrote:
“The ‘crappers’ (an Army term for loo) are in one of the original rooms which have been adapted for the squaddies (low ranking soldiers) to enjoy a degree of comfort. Instead of being the traditional ‘long drop’ they do their business in ’Brief relief bags’! The bags are then thrown into a hole on the other side of the wall to prevent the contents being spread around the compound by incoming helicopters. Needless to say it is burnt regularly along with the other daily rubbish.
“The urinals are waist-height diagonal drain pipes which are dug into the ground so that the pee goes straight into the ground.”
“Diesel generators supply the power 24-7. Critical equipment for their ‘quarters’ includes the iPod and cameras.
“Sleeping spaces are cozy, 1x3 meters, in their case, cot bed with optional mosquito nets, hanging shelves for their clothes, and their equipment and weapon right by their sides.
“They eat multi climate 24-hour ration packs, subsidized by what the soldiers can buy in local markets and food packages from home. There is no full time cook here, though a cook from a large base rigged up an oven for them to use. The troops grill over open fires, rations are boiled over a hexamine solid fuel tablet. The patrol troops will usually have one or two guys who fancy their cooking. The most popular cooks among them are the Fijians.”
While out on patrol, conditions are not quite that good. These men are essentially sleeping in fighting positions, weapons right there should they have to jump up and fight. I have seen many photos of men curled up under trees, trying to stay warm, weapons still by their side. After a patrol, you can see them just drop all the gear, literally fall on it, and sleep right there on he ground.
Once they finish a patrol, the top priority is hygiene, after which they work on sandbags, take care of administrative duties, clean up more and clean up their clothing and weapons. They like joking around, sleep and sports like volleyball, table tennis and rugby.
They are on their best highs when they return from a patrol and recount the day while the adrenaline is still pumping. They love hearing a helicopter approach, seeing a supply wagon approach, receiving something from home, and getting to use the satellite phone. You will hear them cheer when a fighter sweeps in a fast speeds; there are other times they know a fighter is way out there someplace, and the pilot radios to them how many seconds before his laser bomb strikes the target. I have watched some troops do a count-down, and then bang, and then cheers. There is no internet or TV. This photo shows Canadian Master Corporal Chad Vincent, right, with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, after a patrol in the Panjwayi district, south-west of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Friday, June 4, 2010. He’s psyched.
This group of Marines did what many others do. West said the average Marine goes on 100 patrols over a seven-month deployment. West computed that to mean one million footsteps, with tourniquets ready. In six months, Bravo Co. uncovered 60 IEDs in their 30 km zone.
It’s worth noting here that the Afghans did not want to go out on this patrol with the Marines. My guess is they knew this group was aggressive, start to finish. The Afghans wanted to stay inside their base. On one day, Lt. Kurt Hoening, the Bravo Co. platoon commander, told the local police they did not have to patrol with them. He told them they could stay behind in enemy territory, without Marine protection. The police decided to join the patrol!
Steve Mumford reported on a truck convoy he was with along with members of the 3-6 Marines from Camp Hanson in Helmand Province, I believe in 2005. A staff sergeant gave quite a briefing which caught my attention:
"We’re gonna be traveling slow this morning -- I’m taking my time. No one’s in a hurry to get here; no one’s gonna tell me to be in a hurry out there!
“Canals -- be careful! Remember that truck from the other company that slid into the water a couple weeks ago? Guys couldn’t get out -- they drowned to death! Take it slow and smart. Don’t wind up with guys in dress blues showing up at your parents’ house to tell ‘em you got killed for a stupid reason. . . now let’s do this. This is awesome! I am motivated to be here!"
The photo shows a vehicle off the road and stuck in Iraq, but you get the idea, though he was talking about something far worse.
In addition, Mumford highlighted how little the enemy must invest to launch an attack on a patrol. He went on a patrol with L/3-6 Marines in Marja, one dangerous place. He said it was a grueling five hour walk. As they crossed some fields, they came under fire. Everyone dove for cover, and eventually made their way to a water-filled ditch, which actually turned out to be a canal. This photo shows some Marines seeking cover in a ditch after receiving hostile fire back in August 2009. The Afghans with them returned fire, and so did the Marines.
Then, suddenly, up front near the point man, a couple Marines spotted two guys peeling away on a motorcycle. Like Mumford said, “The Marines could’t do much about it.” Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the two enemy created a couple problems for the Marines. First, all day they had been avoiding ditches and canals because of worries about IEDs. Now they found themselves diving into them. Second, the two enemy could have gotten in a lucky shot, or could have been good shots, and killed or maimed someone. Yet, they fled so fast there was nothing anyone could do. The photo shows a large group of Taliban on motorcycles, often two per bike. They use them often to conduct hit and run attacks.
The enemy has its own way of fighting. Back in April 2009, Philip Smucker reported for McClatchy Newspapers about his trip into the village of Doab in Nuristan Province. He traveled with a platoon of the 1-6 Field Artillery and another platoon from the Illinois Army National Guard. They drove out in 16 Humvees along with four truckloads of Afghan police and soldiers. This was to be an overnight patrol, and the first 20 hours went smoothly.
But they had intelligence that said the enemy was preparing an ambush. Apparently some 300 enemy fighters hiked from their homes and converged on a village. I have seen many similar reports, where enemy fighters leave their homes and families in the morning as they go to work to fight against the Allies, and then return home at night for dinner and sleep, just like us going to the office!
On this occasion, even our surveillance drones failed to detect such a large movement of people. The enemy had positioned itself above a newly US-built town meeting hall which was to host an Afghan-American meeting.
But all hell broke loose. The enemy, now in bunkers above the Allies, fired rockets, mortars and machine guns at the Americans. One sergeant tried to unpack his mortar system, but enemy fire cut him down at the legs. Then another was wounded. Medics and a lieutenant responded. The lieutenant grabbed the mortar system and started firing up the mountainside, without knowing where the enemy exactly was.
Then the enemy opened fire from another angle. Enemy snipers were waiting for the medics to move the wounded. The enemy had the high ground and put the Americans under attack from three locations along a road with sheer drop-offs of 1,000 ft.
The convoy moved down the road to a designated landing zone under heavy fire. They could go no further as a boulder blocked their way. The Marines set up a landing zone in a wheat field. The fire was so intense that the medics covered their two wounded men with their own bodies. A rescue helicopter arrived but had to push back. The ground force called in for more air and two Apache attack helicopters promptly arrived. Somehow, the convoy managed to move, with blown out tires and dragging disabled vehicles. A Humvee was hit blowing out 3-inch windows. An unmanned drone arrived and fired a Hellfire missile. An Apache was ordered to destroy the disabled Humvee.
By nighttime, after about seven hours of fighting, the convoy made it back onto its base. The Americans were perturbed to say the least. First, they were surprised by the enemy numbers and firepower. Second, they were sure their Afghan hosts knew of the ambush plan and provided the Americans no warning. Third, the enemy was extremely well entrenched and very well organized, yet another surprise. The Marines felt they held their own but they were certain the enemy would draw great pride from this attack. I suppose the enemy enjoyed recounting the day at dinner that night in the comfort of their homes.
Those who get badly wounded in this war and survive have a day they call “Alive Day.” An alive day is the date of an anniversary of a very close escape from death. They “celebrate” it annually. Military members have been celebrating “Alive Day” since the Indochina War. A Marine sergeant experienced a RPG hitting just a few feet from where he stood while on a foot patrol. He sustained a traumatic brain injury, known to the men as a TBI. He wrote in November 2012 that he was celebrating his Alive Day, but did so in “grumpy silence.” He said, “I still don’t know how to deal with the memory of almost dying. I suppose I will struggle with it for a long time.”
I mentioned that the lead man with the metal detector is known as the “sweeper.” SSgt. Kelly Rogne, 1-23 Infantry, was known as the “IED Whisperer.” He led a patrol of more than 20 soldiers with his detector, sweeping back and forth in the area of Babinek, Afghanistan in fall 2012. Hal Brenton, writing for Seattle Times, said, “Rogne, 36, from Colville, Stevens County, has displayed an uncanny ability to find these improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He uses technology, tracking skills and intuition honed by careful study of past bomb placements.” This photo shows him on a patrol searching for IEDs with his metal detector.
In September 2012, Rogne found 29 IEDs through a very disciplined eight-hour movement across less than a kilometer of road --- about a half-mile. He has guessed he has found more than 150 IEDs during his tour.
Brenton passed on an interesting piece of intelligence. He said, “Those who plant the IEDs are often elusive, quick to duck under trees that hide them from overhead surveillance cameras. Under cover, they can drop their weapons or bomb-making materials, put on new clothing and transform themselves from fighters to villagers. They are also canny scavengers, even turning a staple of Army field life — the foil wrappers that encase Meals Ready-to-Eat — into the outer casing for a pressure plate. U.S. soldiers are wary of contributing to the bomb-making materials. They are under orders to cut up any big, empty plastic jugs, such as those that contain protein powder, before leaving them in the base trash. No one wants those jugs smuggled off base and packed with explosives.”
Lt. Kenneth Showery commented, "It's the little things that tend to bite you. What we look at as trash might be a resource for the insurgents."
While on patrol, the troops try to step on the footprint of the soldier in front of them. While some IEDs are radio activated, most are victim activated by walking on a pressure plate.
Here you see a soldier clearing away the dirt from around a pressure plate in a training exercise. Pressure plates have many designs. This type is considered to be a crudely constructed plate, but one that does the job anyway.
This one looks much the same, but it is a real one dug up by SSgt. Rogne, the “IED Whisperer.”
Soldiers have learned to be careful when they receive hostile fire. Their normal reaction is to seek shelter, then move out toward the shooter hoping to kill him. But they have to be careful, because the attack could be an attempt to lure the soldiers into an area infested by IEDs. One Command Sergeant Major Eric Volk said, "They are shooting at us to try to force us to go in a certain direction, which is more dangerous than if you just stay put," said Volk. The men have to display a lot of discipline."
During 2011, soldiers started receiving Kevlar diapers that wrap around their crotches to protect the upper body core and groin. They have been fairly effective, though I do not know how widespread their use or availability is.
The Army uses what it calls a “Pelvic Protection System,” which is made up of two tiers:
This first photo shows Tier 1, a Protective Under Garment, or PUG, which the soldier puts on underneath his combat fatigue pants. It is designed to protect the pelvic region of dismounted soldiers against a level of ballistic protection and reduce penetration of dirt and fine debris.
This photo shows Tier 2, a Protective Over Garment or POG, designed to reduce penetrations of fragmenting munitions and larger debris.
Designs are available for men and women.
Nate Rawlings of Time Magazine went out on what was called an Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) escort team in Kandahar Province back in early 2011. A platoon already on patrol spotted a command wire leading to something buried in the ground. Another platoon picked up an EOD team from a larger base and dropped them off at a checkpoint. Now an EOD escort team had to get the EOD members to the bomb, and had to do so at night. They would have to walk about 1.5 miles to get there, walking through alleyways and unfinished paths.
Once everyone was together and organized, they pushed out the gate of their outpost. Sergeant First Class Thomas Murphy led the group. They had to wear night vision goggles which can slow things down and make the hike a bit more difficult. In addition, mum was the word. Keep noise to a minimum. Dogs began barking within the village, and the troops could see the signs of life inside the village homes. As night fell, it got cold.
The normal procedure is to conduct controlled detonations at the top of each hour. The troops will warn the civilians and tell them not to venture out at each hour’s five minutes. So this patrol had to wait 30 minutes.
The EOD team leader headed down the wall. The team would place C4 explosives next to the IED and run a detonation cord across the field. They then attached that to the initiator with a small length of wire known as the “shock tube.” The EOD team leader yelled, “Everybody down behind the wall. Fire in the hole.” The blast went off and echoed throughout the village. The team then had to inspect the IED to be sure it was destroyed.
The patrol then exited the area, leaving on a different route than used to enter. They made it back to the outpost. Mission accomplished.
So, the IED is a gruesome threat --- I’ve talked about it many times here, because it is such a terrible threat. It’s always comforting to know you are out on patrol with a fellow like Rogne. But when a colleague is hit, the men will grieve. First Sergeant Michael Robinson said, “It's a mindset. If you let the fear take hold, it will rule you, and a bad thing will happen. If you understand that the IED is just an obstacle — something that is just there: You can identify it. Go around it. Or take it out. But you have a choice." So the patrols continue, and the troops go out understanding the threat.
Here you see Soldiers with Task Force centurion Prime's Headhunter (HHC) and Chaos (Charlie Co.) pray together before heading out on a mission in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Prayer is common before the troops go out on patrol. Sometimes, if the boss forgets to huddle the troops together and say a prayer, one of them will remind him they forgot the prayer, and then they say it. For some, perhaps many, maybe all, it is a prayer for survival. Some of the men are conflicted. On the one hand, their orders are to let the Afghans take the lead and let them do the fighting. But on the other, some of the men feel they are abandoning their allies. In some cases, when the Afghans get in trouble, the men will beg their commanders to be released and allowed to join up with the Afghans to bail them out. In a report filed by David S. Cloud for the Tribune on December 10, 2012, Lt. Colonel Patrick Michaelis, USA, a commander, was quoted saying, “It’s a big gamble. I’ve got officers out there who want to (do more) and I have to say, ‘Stop, slow down.’ ”
I should conclude, though I would like to keep on going. It has been weird for me to prepare this report, especially given the comments of that Marine I cited at the outset --- you have to be there to understand. My report is way to long. I wonder if anyone will read the whole thing. But each time I would come across a point I was making, I would do a little research, and learn more, and then find a place to insert that new point. Frankly I think I could remain in this cycle forever! But I’ve got to close this out.
I ran across a most interesting suite of videos on assignmentafghanistan.org which played back comments of individual Marines of the 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, Blackfoot Co., 1-5 Marines in Sangin District in July 2011. I urge you to watch each segment in full --- these are our neighbors telling us how they feel --- we owe it to them to listen, even more than once. The video was done by Elliott D. Woods. I’d like to provide a glimpse at some highlights:
Commenting on Sangin, one compared it to the US southwest, He said, “Nice place, but one of the biggest shitholes in the world.” Another said, “I’m not even a full grown man yet. I carry my rocket launcher which weighs 30 lbs., patrol all day, walking through creeks, mud, canals, water, rivers, tall grass, cornfields, and it gets just really tiring. Yet another said, “I live in a fucking mud hut. It’s just about three feet thick walls of mud. And I got flees because of the fucking chickens that run around.” I liked shooting at the enemy, but he added it was not fun getting shot at.
A corporal with the squad, a team leader, said he liked to be up front, behind the sweeper. He cited several reasons, one of which was that it would position him to be the first to get hit with the pressure plate. He said he loved his Marines and did not want them to get hurt. An assault man said the hardest part of being out there was watching friends get hurt or pass away. A SAW gunner said, “I imagine losing my legs or arms all the time, and we just make jokes about it. You see all the time people losing their legs and you have to help them out, and then you think about yours and, man I can imagine going to Germany and getting your surgery and get healed up and then I get my little ‘tink-tink’ legs, is what we call them, our little metal legs. We talk about it in jokes and you know, I think swimming would be so much easier if we just attached paddles to our little metal legs. It’s all about making jokes out of it. If you don’t make jokes, it would be too grim.”
A minesweeper comment, “Lately I’ve been sweeping, it’s been my job, and when we first got here it wasn’t as bad, but now, the IED threat is getting a lot heavier. It’s kinda starting to suck, each day, like going out, I’ve got to sweep again, but I’d rather it be me rather than anybody else. So definitely quick to let everybody know I’ll do it. I mean, I’ve lived, I’ve enjoyed my life, if I die, shit I’m in a more peaceful place than being around all this shit, so I really don’t care.”
To finish off, some Marines commented on what they’ve learned. A radio operator said, “I don’t think I had a respect for the Taliban that I do now, they just kinda seemed like random farmers, but their tactics, they are wicked smart. Mines and IEDs are ingenious, like how they use them, how they employ them, as well as guerrilla warfare in general, dressing them up to match the local population, is like crazy smart because you don’t know who they are, they could be watching, they could be shaking your hand.”
An assistant patrol leader remarked, “The (American) civilian populace, they stay in their own little bubble, you know, they’re content in that little bubble they stay in. They don’t need none of this shit. No one needs to know the shit that we go through. ‘Cause if they start asking us questions about the shit that we go through, they wouldn’t have any understanding because they were never there, they would not know what you felt, of how it affected you mentally and physically. They wouldn’t have nay idea of what it feels like to hold a tourniquet on somebody’s leg like while you’re watching him bleed away. They wouldn’t know any of that.”
This squad’s platoon suffered 50 percent casualties in seven months, which include three killed and half-dozen traumatic amputations, all caused by pressure-plate IEDs.
Returning to the CBS “60 Minutes” report I mentioned earlier, a sergeant first class, interviewed right at the end, was asked what he thought about the mission. He responded:
“That’s my goal, to help as many good people as I can help, to get rid of as many bad people as I can get rid of, and to take as many of mine back home as I can take.”